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  • Oli Pikett

Brokeback Mountain - A Cue Analysis

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Part 2 of Guitars in Film Music

How do you score a film about a deeply complicated relationship between two men set against the harsh, masculine world of Signal, Wyoming in 1963? That was the task of Gustavo Santaolalla in creating his masterful 2005 Oscar winning score to Brokeback Mountain.

Very briefly, the film tells the story of two young ranch hands who meet while tending sheep on the hills around the remote Brokeback Mountain and unexpectedly find a romantic connection. Set against the backdrop of prejudice and fear of homophobic reprisal, the men realise that they are unable to have a future together and, instead, attempt to lead traditional family lives. It is an unconventional love story, in which each character's presence in the other's life brings happiness, as well as loneliness and grief.

Santaolalla’s role was to balance the film’s themes of desire, repression and loss with the huge skies of the American wilderness. As the film covers 20 years in the lives of the protagonists, he needed strong thematic content to anchor the characters and locations, whilst underscoring the wide screen shots. The result is a stark, haunting and beautiful soundtrack to an American tragedy.

Unusually, Santaolalla completed his score before filming had begun. This enabled the director (in his own words) to use the music “to generate the narrative of the movie”. It was therefore Ang Lee who decided where each of Santaolalla’s musical cues would be used in the film, allowing for a truly collaborative process.

The score itself is a hybrid of plaintive acoustic guitar and chamber orchestral instruments, with touches of pedal steel. The orchestral parts exist in very much a supporting role to the guitar - one of the many features shared with Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to ‘Paris, Texas’.

The acoustic guitar is, perhaps, an obvious choice for the setting. It effortlessly evokes the sound of the American West. However, the real challenge for Santaolalla was to avoid it falling into cliché: an excess of country twang could easily have tipped the balance too far into the world of the cowboy, obscuring the importance of the human relationship in the story.

The Cue: 'Brokeback Mountain 1'

Entering the film at 9 minutes 22 seconds, the cue ‘Brokeback Mountain 1' is a masterclass in simplicity and minimalism. On screen, the protagonists are starting their summer working as ranchers in the isolated grazing pastures of Brokeback Mountain. They are herding sheep, crossing rivers on horseback and setting up camp against the sunset. It is idyllic, and far from the angst which plagues the two men later in the film.

The cue opens with the guitar playing a delicate sequence of movements between two chords, one whole step apart (G major and A). The part is fingerpicked with an intentionally loose sense of timing, so that notes from the melody are left to hang before resolving to the next chord.

The voicings chosen for these chords are simple but deliberate. Santaolalla uses 2 and 3 note ‘spread triads’ in the open position, so that the 3rd of the chord is placed more than an octave above the root (an interval of a 10th). The 5th of the G chord (a D note) and the b7th of the A7 chord (a G note) are added as solitary passing tones to create a minimal but captivating melody. It is this 7 note melody which encapsulates the theme of the mountain, and signifies its enduring impact on the characters throughout the film. Whilst the open chord shapes Santaolalla uses are well known to most guitarists, the sound he creates with them is unique and highly effective.

Below is a transcription of the guitar part in the first 14 bars of the cue:

This use of sparse, wide intervals quite literally reflects the visual expanse of the film’s landscape. Film composers typically have to tread a careful line when choosing to mimic the visuals on screen with their musical approach, as they run the risk of sounding obvious or trite. In this case, however, Santaolalla strikes the perfect balance, with his use of spread chords and open strings helping to glue the music to the picture.

Santaolalla himself has explained that the use of space and silence was central to his approach to this score. He clearly intended it to have an impact beyond just the vastness of the mountain setting. His minimal arrangement also underlines the nature of the two main characters who, particularly in the case of Ennis Delmar, speak relatively little during the film. A dense musical score would just have crowded and overwhelmed their dialogue (both literally and figuratively). It is highly relatable that Santaolalla found that it took a lot of courage to write music in this way, without relying on complex arrangements to carry the atmosphere. Most composers would agree that basing an entire score around a handful of single notes on an acoustic guitar would feel like a risk, but it was one that paid off, and serves as a lesson to us all.

The Orchestra

For the first half of the cue, Santaolalla allows the guitar to take centre stage. A light string pad and French horn enter during bars 3 and 4, although they are barely audible at this point - they blend with the chorused reverb, just creating a gentle harmony and adding some width to the guitar. In bar 7, the strings start to bring their own richness to the harmony, emphasising an F# over the guitar’s basic G triad (a resulting G Major 7th chord), resolving down a step to an E note over the underlying A chord.

At bar 18 (00:56) there is a shift in the emphasis of the arrangement. The strings begin to swell around the guitar, which changes register and makes use of higher (and closed) voiced major chords. In doing so, the earlier sense of space gives way to a rich and swirling hybrid sound - the meeting of acoustic guitar, pedal steel and the orchestra all creating a new vibrancy and motion. This all serves the film's setting on screen, adding a sense of joy to the halcyon experiences early on in the film.

Whilst the orchestra builds, it retains mostly an harmonic role, providing a chordal pad to the guitar. It is only at bar 29 that the guitar gives way to allow a brief but signifiant performance of the theme by the orchestra. The strings interact brilliantly with the pedal steel, which glides over the top adding a washy, ethereal quality.

A perfect example of Santaolalla’s mastery occurs at bar 36 (01:52) just before the guitar rejoins the cue. The strings are holding an Eb/Bb chord, and Santaolalla brings in the pedal steel with a high C note (creating an Eb6 tonality). The pedal steel slowly slides that C note up a whole step to a D. The D note is the 5th degree of the G chord that follows, taking us neatly back to the opening chord of the cue.

A Wandering Key

A feature of this cue is that the tonal centre feels as if it is constantly wandering and unsettled. Even though ambiguous tonal centres are a hallmark of film music in general, it has a particular impact in a narrative which places self doubt at its core. Whether this allusion was intentional to the story or not, its effect certainly helps to underline a plot which surrounds lost and confused central characters.

The opening 8 bars point to a key of A mixolydian, a consequence of the A chord feeling like a point of resolution from the preceding G Major chord. Yet this proves to be only a temporary subversion, as Santaolalla quickly takes us to the parent key of D major in bar 9. Over the next few bars, Santaolalla offers us some simple, diatonic D major harmony, all quite reassuring and familiar.

At bar 18, the new pairing of F major and G major chords suggest that another key centre is emerging, and we expect the harmony to move towards C major. Instead, Santaolalla resolves us again to a D major chord. The listener feels pulled sharply backwards into the original key of the piece, almost as though the mountain itself is drawing them back in.

The cue then makes a further attempt to break towards the key of C, this time with somewhat greater success. In doing so, Santaolalla makes liberal use of a non-diatonic Bb major chord in his progression. This is the bVII chord in the key of C, and has been borrowed from a parallel mode - C mixolydian - in the process known as modal interchange. The overall effect of this is a key centre which drifts between C mixolydian and F major (its parent key), finally winding up unresolved as the guitar hands over the reigns to the orchestra.

Guitarists will find that adding a major chord one whole step below their major tonic is an easy entry point to the sound of the mixolydian mode. It can help to take a bit of the predictable ‘sweetness’ out of major key chord progressions, and Santaolalla has exploited this approach in this cue. Just listen to the music of Larry Carlton to see how he uses this concept in both his chord playing and solo lines.

The Sound of Silence

When recording the guitar parts, Santaolalla wanted to allow the resonance of the wood of the guitar to be heard during the spaces between the notes. He aimed for his picked notes to hang, and then blend into a gentle dissonance. It comes across that this is a man who loves the guitar as an instrument, and finds beauty in the smallest details. Perhaps this passion is the true reason behind his score’s success.

There is a profound use of reverb on the guitar part, which is partly responsible for it having such a haunting sound. Interestingly for an acoustic guitar recording, Santaolalla was not trying to achieve a realistic ‘room’ sound with his reverb. Instead, his reverb has very a long tail, and a touch of chorus, aiming for maximum expanse and blend with the strings. This effect could be achieved in the studio with an algorithmic style reverb plugin such as Valhalla Vintage Verb, using a long decay time.

The guitar part as a whole has an almost improvised sound to it. It is almost as though Santaolalla didn’t quite know where the cue would take him until he had started playing it. I hope that was the case. The timing is certainly very free, finding its own variations in tempo as dictated by the shape of the melody. This sense of freedom is, without question, the right ‘feel’ for the film. It is important to remember that, in the age of the DAW, there are still times when it might be better to turn off the ‘click’, and let the film and the music find their own natural rhythm.

As the film unfolds, the audience discovers that the mountain itself has become a symbol of the characters’ relationship and the brief moments of happiness they had in their young lives together. This cue, and variations of it, are used by Ang Lee several times later on in the film whenever he wants the audience to relive the characters’ memories of the mountain. A textbook use of thematic material!

What To Do Next

There is so much that musicians and composers can take from a successful musical cue. Here are some suggestions as to how to develop a few of the ideas touched upon in this article:

  • Explore the use of Spread Triads on the guitar as an alternative to more common ‘close’ voicings. A useful exercise would be to find spread triad shapes across the neck of the guitar for all major and minor keys, in the 3 possible inversions. Then put these voicings through a chord progression, aiming to move to the closest available chord shape on the neck as you change chord.

  • Experiment with the use of Space. Try to write a piece which has nearly equal parts space and melody, or restrict yourself to 3 or 4 instruments for the entire composition.

  • Create interesting uses of Tonal Ambiguity in a composition, and subvert the listener’s expectations as to where a chord progression is heading. Start a piece in a particular mode, and then shift the emphasis to the parent key, or vice versa.

  • Explore how to use Modal Interchange to introduce non-diatonic chords into typical chord progressions in order to add interest and originality.

  • Find interesting ways to add Effects to acoustic guitar, and experiment with more extreme settings on common effects such as reverb.

The next instalment will be an analysis of John Powell's score to Jessie Nelson’s 2001 film 'I Am Sam'.

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